Weaving the Web: What’s in a name?

Part I: Welcome to Dismantling White Supremacy

Dear UUCPA folks,

When I brought the idea of a “White Folks Dismantling White Supremacy” group to UUCPA, it was exactly that: a group for white folks to address themselves to a stubborn problem: US society has systems in place, constructed over centuries and never entirely dismantled, that favor white people over others. I chose the title not only to make the point that white supremacy is a problem that will not be solved without the efforts of anti-racist white folks, although it is. Nor to nudge white folks to acknowledge that we do have a racial identity, whether we like it or not and as much as we might be socialized to think “I’m just a person–racial labels don’t apply,” though that’s a good piece of learning. I had a sadder reason.

That reason was, quite simply, that I didn’t trust white folks to be a part of a multiracial, multiethnic group working against racism, and not make the people of color in the room feel even more excluded and burdened. What if we were learning about discrimination against Asian-Americans and one of the white people in the room turned to an Asian-American member of the group and asked, with a challenging tone, “What about you? Have you ever felt discriminated against?” Ouch. Or what if some of the white folks gathered just sincerely wanted to know what the problem is with, say, “color-blindness” or some other principle that they were taught?–they need a space to have that conversation, do that learning, without people of color having to be a part of it, because it gets so exhausting for POC to hear. So I thought we’d call it White Folks Dismantling White Supremacy, and we’d put this explanation on the webpage and the email group invitation:

All people of whatever race or background are welcome to attend any or all sessions. We call the group “White Folks . . . ” because we recognize that the work of dismantling white supremacy is for white people to do. It’s also important to have anti-racism learning spaces for white folks, where they can grapple with new ideas about racism and speak candidly about their fears and misconceptions. It can be painful for people of color to witness these conversations, so we have created this space apart from the main body of the congregation.

Well, learning opportunities are everywhere. In trying to avoid those hurts, I inflicted another one, because my attempt at an explanation did not prevent some folks right here at UUCPA from feeling that they just weren’t welcome. I apologize. I messed up, and in a classic way: I took my lead from other white people, instead of investigating (via books and the many other resources BIPOC have created) how people of color would advise me to proceed. If you are one of the people who felt unwelcome, I am very sorry for sending you that message.

The overwhelming wish among regular attendees of the group is for us to change the name to “Dismantling White Supremacy.” So that is the new name. Who we are: we are emphatically everyone who wants to dismantle white supremacy. What we do: as Ijeoma Oluo says, “Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself.” I still worry that white people in the group (including me) will do or say something that makes a person of color in the group think, “Even here?!” But I hope we have learned enough to tackle it when it occurs. The primary purpose of the group will be to work together to build the world we dream about.

As for white learning spaces, we’ll create those when we need to. I think, I hope, we white folks have learned enough over the past 2+ years in the group to have the “I don’t get it” conversations constructively: with other white people who will help us to get it; in a spirit of “help me do better” rather than “soothe my hurt and tell me I was in the right”; and without asking people of color to do our emotional labor. I hope the people of color can trust that despite mistakes, the spirit of white allyship is strong enough that their “Even here?!” will be met by a genuine push to make things better. As Ijeoma Oluo went on to say, “It’s the only way forward.”

Part II: Taking the Learning Out to UUCPA

I have witnessed and heard about moments like this at UUCPA: someone who looks Latine being asked “Where are you from?” by someone who won’t take “L.A.” for an answer. Someone who is clearly Asian in origin being asked if they make a lot of Chinese food at home. A black guest speaker being asked whether his parents are black because he doesn’t “sound” black. Whatever the intentions behind these comments, their effect is to make the recipient feel like they don’t belong.

If you’re thinking, “I have said something like that!”: this is a learning moment. It probably doesn’t feel very good. I encourage you to sit with the feelings you’re having, not judging or defending or taking action at all, just observing. This is one of the best things we can do to be the people we want to be. This is why we’re at UUCPA. And I’ve been there, and it’s hard. Just like in the gym, that soreness is a sign that we’re stretching and gaining strength.

If you are uncomfortably wondering, “I don’t get it. What’s wrong with those questions?”: again, you’re in the right place to find out why people dislike them. Our resident religious educator, Minister of Religious Education Cat Boyle, is a great person to ask. So am I (I’m a religious educator too!). We will respect your willingness to “ask a stupid [sic] question” and your openness to learning, and we’ll be glad to exercise our allyship, imperfect and developing as it is.

Thanks for sticking with this long message! Dismantling White Supremacy meets on the second and fourth Tuesday. Sadly, Zoombombers are a reality, and we’d like to protect the group from them, so please write to dismantlingwhitesupremacy+subscribe@uucpa.org to get the full sign-in information.